I have been blessed with a creative life, something that is not intuitively associated with urban planners.
But blessed I am with creative challenges, opportunities for collaboration, and frequent occasions when these two favorites are combined.
Over some decades I have gained skills and tools and accomplices that have helped me become a more sophisticated and creative problem-solver and facilitator. But along with that sophistication has come a greater awareness that my typically noisy, busy, and productive mind could greatly benefit from extended periods of quiet, focused presence, and receptivity.
Over the past few years, I have developed a few regular practices that help me move towards a more balanced relationship with my mind, which I will share with you here.
I first became acquainted with The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron in a fiction writing workshop led by Francesca Lia Block (highly recommended). It was one of those secrets of the universe with which everyone in the workshop seemed familiar except for me. I read the book and particularly liked her notion of “morning pages” –– three pages worth of daily, long-hand, free-writing as a means of clearing the mind and tapping into a less cluttered subconscious.
But I didn’t DO it.
It wasn’t until I found Buster Benson‘s 750 words.com website that I was hooked. And “hooked” means that I have been writing 750 words or more [almost] every morning for the past 931 days, adding up to a cumulative total of 761,313 words. The reason that I possess these numbers is because the website counts them up for me, as one means of encouragement to maintain the writing habit, eloquently summarized in the site’s tagline: “private, unfiltered, spontaneous, daily.”
There are many other encouragements. Badges. 750 words offers silly badges as rewards for continuous streaks of daily writing. You start as an egg. If you write three days straight, you become a turkey. Five days straight, a penguin. Ten days, a flamingo. Thirty an albatross. One hundred, a phoenix. I am presently on day 146, my longest streak being 176 a couple of years ago. I missed a day, and as these things go, went back to being an egg. But by then, I was well beyond hooked.
There are other helpful ways that the site keeps you going. It counts your words as you go. It sends me an email at 7 am every day if I haven’t written my words yet, suggesting that I do so [Subject: You should write 750 words]. If I have already written my words, it congratulates me with a rose.
But these are merely gateway drugs. The real addiction comes from the actual benefits derived from the habit. So here are three of mine:
1. Working Through a Nasty Mood
When I am angry, obsessed, petty, jealous, morose, depressed, insecure –– beset by emotions that distract me from the tasks or people before me, 750 words is a good friend. I just write it out, whatever it is, so I can get on with my day. Of course, there are some furies, disappointments, and anxieties that even 1500 words can’t calm, but in those situations, there is comfort in knowing that I can rage on the following morning. 750 words will be there for me. That is why I tend to start each entry with “Hello friend.”
2. Making Lists
Sometimes my writing helps me organize things. Just the act of writing them down can turn a cloud of overwhelming work into manageable parts. So sometimes I make lists about that. Other times, when things are difficult, I list the things and people I appreciate, the things for which I have gratitude, and write about them. Sometimes I mix these up and, while I’m at it include my shopping list.
3. Working Through a Daunting Problem
This is by far my favorite benefit and where I frequently, and calmly, receive an “Aha” moment. There are times when I am temporarily paralyzed by a big or annoying or challenging or complicated project –– frequently a project that possesses all of the above qualities –– and I am stumped at even where to start. So I write it out. Again, this isn’t like my normal work space. It is, as the tag-line suggests, free and spontaneous and unfiltered. I might start with “What if?” I might not follow a linear path.
More often than not, right around word 700, ideas begin to flow, and with that comes a sense of direction and confidence. Those are the times when I end the morning pages with a “Thank you, 750 words.”
Riding My Bike
I used to run. 3-6 miles or so most days of the week. That was my exercise. That was also a dependable way to quiet my mind, space out, and access some state of reverie that created a more receptive space in my mind. But as I grew older, my knees started to hurt and I noticed how much more I walked when I took public transportation in New York. So I gave my car to one of my children and bought a bus pass and a bike. Since I’ve been teaching at Antioch, about 7 miles from my house, I’ve been biking to work 3-4 times a week.
It took me a while to find a route that doesn’t require a lot of defensive attention to automobile and bus traffic. But once I got in that groove, I really appreciate the regular time outdoors, the time “unplugged”, and how my mind relaxes during this particular mashup of exercise and transportation.
As with the many joys that come with living, there are also many sorrows and griefs. Such is the human condition. Some very difficult troubles with a loved one recently propelled me to look into mindful meditation. I attended a short session at school offered by Matt Silverstein, a colleague who teaches Depth Psychology at Antioch. Soon after, a sympathetic friend loaned me Against the Stream [subtitle: A Buddhist Manual for Spiritual Revolutionaries] by Noah Levine, who organized a Buddhist meditation society by the same name in Los Angeles.
Since then I have sat with members of that community in meditation, attended a training, and will participate in a two-day retreat next month.
This is new to me. So far I find it helpful, comforting and difficult. It might yet be my most promising path towards building a more balanced relationship with my mind.
I’ll let you know.